United Airlines - PR Crisis at 20,000 feet

19 May 2020 13:49

PR Crisis at 20,000 Feet

Crisis management is the kind of PR skill where companies learn more from bad examples than good ones. Your department or agency should, therefore, be taking notes concerning United Airlines and the way it handled the forcible removal of a passenger from one of its overbooked flights. It's important not to look away at times like this - learning from missteps and errors is a sure way to make sure you don't repeat them. As the consequences of United's bad week become clear, the message to other PR departments will be equally plain.

Apology Not Accepted

The PR lessons have come fast and furious in the wake of the taped incident on the United flight. Nearly all of these insights have been of the "what not to do" variety. PR Daily contributor Hinda Mitchell, head of Inspire PR Group, recently gave an analysis of CEO Oscar Munoz's reaction to the incident, focusing on both the timing and content of his first pair of statements - one to the public and another to United employees.

In a crisis, a PR team has two weapons: speed and resolve. The fact that Munoz waited for a day to say anything is the first warning sign. Today's media cycle moves at a frantic pace. Online publishing becoming the standard means of news dissemination has meant that stories can develop in well under a day. Even if mainstream outlets have yet to pick up on a controversy, it can be a hot topic between individuals on social media. If a PR team waits a day to respond in any way, it risks losing control of the narrative. Mitchell sees that happening in United Airlines' case.

Once the responses came, their content and tone did little to defuse the wave of criticism. The public apology statement opened by describing the event as upsetting to the airline's personnel. As Mitchell specified, people reading a response to a brand's crisis don't want to hear that the company is sorry for itself. Munoz’s public statement about standing behind his employees missed the mark because it failed to connect with the audience. It may have been acceptable for an internal communication, but to the masses it simply shows that United is only looking out for themselves - something that should be an obvious no-no as both a customer-service company, and a publicly traded company. Those who watched the video footage of the passenger being dragged off the plane naturally won’t sympathize with the organization behind the act, meaning the apology has alienated its audience from its first sentence.

Launching a tone-deaf statement a day into a PR crisis is not going to bring the situation back under control. Being late to respond is one major problem in communications. Making a public address that goes over poorly is another, independent mistake. Put them together and the effects are potentially massive - as United has demonstrated.

An International Incident

Brands that have reach around the world - such as, say, an international airline - must be extremely conscious of how crises are developing in multiple countries. Digital communication is not only fast, but it crosses borders. Even though there is little connection between China's mainstream social media presence and the U.S. equivalent, the video and apology made their mark, according to PR Week. In the days since the crisis unfolded, the airline's brand value has taken a severe hit in the sizable Chinese market.

The discussion of the incident in China has been nothing short of scathing. The news provider pointed out that some users of Chinese networks such as Weibo have posted photos of their United rewards credit cards cut to pieces. Hilton + Knowlton Strategies' Alec Peck told the source that the social media storms in the U.S. and China had very little contact with one another. Instead, the crisis grew simultaneously and organically in both places.

Shanghai AtComm Consulting's Shirley King told PR Week that the criticism on the Chinese internet focuses on a few particular elements of the incident. The video shows an elderly person being harmed, it represents an abject failure of customer service and, as the victim is of Asian descent, it appears to have a racial component. These traits have fueled the negative sentiments, as the video and "patronizing" United statements have been criticized harshly.

Staying aware

Your department or agency doubtless wants to avoid ending up in the kind of situation that has engulfed United over the past few days. Preventing incidents from becoming flashpoints for outrage today means having a view of media that is constantly updated and internationally clear.

Stories can break quickly and develop their own characteristics across the globe. Organizations need to remember that speed and resolve are the two tools in their arsenal when a crisis hits, and need to make those core to their response plan. Additionally they need to remember the PR101 tip of knowing their audience.

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